LAKEWOOD RANCH — The air was filled with smoke, lights and sirens.
People were buzzing around with two-way radios.
Barricade tape kept bystanders at a safe distance.
A fire engine ladder platform rescue was under way.
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But Thursday afternoon’s frightening sights and sounds at the Manatee Technical Institute’s Fire Academy tower on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard were not a real disaster, just a multi-agency disaster drill.
“It felt very real, especially when we saw the fire trucks pull up,” said Brian Richter, 13, one of 35 teenage campers, who lent their acting skills as victims of an imaginary chlorine leak.
The teens, ages 13 to 18, attended the American Red Cross, Manatee County Chapter’s sixth annual Disaster Camp.
The drill was based on an actual event that occurred in a high school in Minnesota, said Bob Tollise, Hazmat coordinator for Manatee County.
As the Minnesota kids were participating in summer school a few years ago, a crew was overhauling the school’s swimming pool heating and sanitizing system.
A new employee accidently opened a high pressure chlorine gas line, leading to an active leak of toxic gas.
Just before the drill began, roughly 35 emergency workers got briefed on the scenario from Tollise.
These responders included firefighters from Southern Manatee, Bradenton, East Manatee, West Manatee and Trailer Estates.
There were also Manatee County emergency medical service workers at the briefing as well as the county’s EMS auxiliary.
Officials with the Manatee Emergency Operations Center and 911 call center also took part.
“I was very impressed with how the crews formed a unified command,” Tollise said.
The highlight of the event, which featured lots of water sprayed on the fire tower and orange smoke to simulate the chlorine, was having the kids to portray real victims, said Tom Sousa, captain of West Manatee Fire, whose five-man ladder 129 crew performed the rescue of kids trapped on the roof of the fire tower.
“We don’t usually practice with actual victims,” Sousa said.
Chloe Bergeron, 14, who portrayed a girl with two broken legs, was the loudest screamer of the students trapped by the leak. “Ask anyone, I’ve always been a loud person,” Bergeron said.
Campers Taylor Newjon, 13, and Katherine Somodi, 17, portrayed victims killed by the chlorine blast and each realized how, as “dead weight,” they were difficult for rescue personnel to handle.
“I’m 155 pounds but it took two of them to lift me because when you are dead you can’t help at all,” Somodi said.
The final of three similar drills will be held next Thursday afternoon at the fire tower, Tollise said.